Feeling Lonely? There's an App for That!

How Combining Ancient Meditation Practices with Modern Technology Can Help Reduce Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation, and Improve Your Health and Happiness

In the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest studies of human happiness, researchers found that individuals with good, close personal relationships are not only happier, they are also mentally and physically healthier. Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and the current director of the Harvard study explains, “People who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, and with community.” Waldinger also notes that how we pay attention to other people, being able to pay close, openhearted attention to them and “being fully present” with the people in our lives also improves our happiness. He concludes that the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships were the happiest and healthiest. (Dr. Waldinger’s TEDTalk on this study can be found here What Makes a Good Life)

The Epidemic of Loneliness in Modern Life

Despite these findings, people today are feeling more isolated and lonelier than ever before. This may be the result of the characteristics of modern life: people are getting married later; they are having fewer children; the workplace has become more transient resulting in less opportunity to be together; and, we are using social media to make human connections through passively scrolling and viewing, rather than actively participating in social interaction.

As a result, we are seeing an epidemic of loneliness and a feeling of social isolation that scientists now believe are leading to the sharp rise in unhappiness, depression, and anxiety across all age groups. Studies are showing evidence that loneliness may even increase a person’s risk of a wide range of health problems, including increased risks for heart attacks, stroke, and cancer, and may even shorten a person’s lifespan.

How We Can Foster Greater Connection in Our Modern Lives

Show Up

In response to this growing feeling of isolation, and with greater awareness of the negative health implications of loneliness, people are finding new ways to congregate and new places to connect in a more meaningful way. Walk into any Starbucks and you will see that coffee shops have become places to gather and connect. The popularity of coworking spaces, like WeWork for example, is a trend in the transient workspace era that is a response to our need to gather together to network and socialize and to feel a sense of belonging to a community.

At-home exercise classes, like Peloton, allow you to join a group class from the comfort of your own home but still a part of a live class experience. The Peloton instructors monitor your progress and even call out your name to congratulate you on reaching certain milestones. As a Peloton enthusiast myself, I feel a real connection to the instructors and look forward to riding with them. And, with a million people joining the Peloton platform, I feel as if I am exercising with a large group of impassioned riders each time I log on, giving me a real sense of motivation, support, and community.

There has also been a surge in the number of people meditating over the past 10 years, and a tremendous amount of research showing the health benefits of meditation. Among the many benefits, scientists have found that meditation may be a cure for loneliness. A recent study at Carnegie Mellonshowed people participating in Smartphone mindfulness training experienced a decrease in feelings of loneliness and an increase in social interactions in their day. The study emphasized how beneficial regular mindfulness practice can be on overall mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Don’t Do It Alone

Technology has enabled us to be more independent. We no longer need to be in a physical workspace to get work done or to communicate with co-workers. Through the magic of the internet, we can interact virtually in almost every aspect of our lives without face-to-face human contact. We can shop, find information, order meals, even “see the world” virtually. Despite the convenience and freedom this gives us, we are also feeling the deep human longing for real connection and the lack of it in our modern lives.

In much the same way, modern technology has enabled us to experience the benefits of meditation by simply plugging in our headphones and listening to guided meditations on demand wherever we are. This quick and easy access to a teacher and guidance as we meditate is a wonderful thing, offering many benefits. However, one myth about meditation in its modern form is that it is meant to be a solitary practice. What may have been lost in this explosion of meditation on demand is one of the most important aspects of meditation, the incredible power of group practice.

Anyone who has meditated in a group has likely experienced the power of group meditation. As a meditation teacher, I often hear my students recognize how much easier it is to meditate in a group. Part of the benefit comes from the simple fact that we are less likely to quit or give up when we are sitting with other people. Group practice also helps us stay focused and motivated to keep practicing. But the benefit of group practice is more than that. There is a deep sense of community and support when we show up together to sit and breathe. In fact, ancient Buddhist teachings, from which modern secular mindfulness practices originate, explain that the Sangha, the Sanskrit word for community, is one of the most important parts of the practice, if not the most important. The Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (the teaching), and the Sangha (the community) are referred to as the “three precious jewels” of Buddhism. Buddhist teachings explain that the most important of these jewels is the Sangha because both the teaching and the teacher can be found in the community, and taking refuge and placing your trust in a community of like-minded people who practice together is the key to a deep and transformative experience.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Buddhist monk and author of many best-selling books on mindfulness, explains that practicing meditation together is much more than community building, “it is a wonderful opportunity to allow the collective energy of the Sangha to penetrate into our body and consciousness.”

Today, we are seeing the draw of this community practice in the explosion of secular meditation centers opening in highly populated areas where people can drop in and meditate together. After more than a decade of participating in and leading meditation groups, I can attest that one of the greatest gifts of my meditation practice has been sitting together with others and being part of some very special meditation communities. These communities have motivated me to continue to deepen my practice, and have given me support and comfort when I needed it. I have developed deep friendships with members of my meditation groups and a strong feeling of connection. It is a beautiful thing, in our busy modern world, to slow down with others and simply breathe together, holding space for one another, and opening our hearts to each other. And in this beautiful space of community, we realize that we all have our struggles and we are not alone.

Now there is a new and innovative way to learn and practice meditation for beginners and experienced meditators alike that combines the power of group meditation with modern technology. Journey LIVE is the world’s first live group meditation community in which, at the touch of a button, you can join a live teacher and connect with other people from around the world, in real time, all practicing meditation together. Each meditation session is just 15 minutes, followed by a discussion and dialogue with experienced meditation teachers and the group. This allows people the unique opportunity to sit together and breathe, to feel supported, and to connect with a teacher and a community in real time. I am thrilled to be a Founding Teacher on this new platform and I have been amazed by the feeling of community and connection that is being created. (If you want to give it a try, click here to learn how.)

Be Seen

One of my wonderful meditation teachers, Vinny Ferraro, uses the phrase, “See me. Don’t see me.” This refers to how we often want people to see the attractive, perfect side of ourselves, and we want to hide our imperfections. In a meditation community, however, we learn to embrace each other in an open and nonjudgmental way and recognize the truth that no one’s life is perfect (despite how it may appear on social media). In group practice, we share our common experiences, our challenges and struggles, our joys and simple pleasures, and the intensity of our human experience. We no longer have to fear being seen or judged. Instead, we learn to embrace and see all of ourselves and accept ourselves just as we are so we can live more authentically, fully and lovingly. Similarly, we learn to be open to others in a non-judgmental, openhearted and compassionate way so that we can truly see each other just as we are, imperfections and all.
Be Connected
Innate in our human experience is a feeling of separateness — that I am inside of “me” and out there is the rest of the world. Over the course of human evolution, we have developed a need to protect and defend ourselves from the dangers of the world around us. We have learned to hunt and gather so that we have enough to survive. Unlike other cultures where people are taught their deep connection to the world or the importance of being a part of a community, our modern western culture does the opposite and deepens our sense of separation in many ways. We live in a very individualistic and competitive culture in which we feel the need to achieve more, to do more, to be more in order to be accepted, to feel special or to belong. This only serves to heighten our sense of not being enough and our need to stand separate and apart from the rest. But in meditation, we can break down that separateness and see our similarities, see our common struggles, and realize that we are not alone or separate, and that we each bring something quite special to the group. We discover that there is not a finite amount of joy, success or happiness. By allowing ourselves to truly be happy for others as they succeed and find joy, we are also increasing (not decreasing) our own happiness.

It is my hope that in a world of growing division, disconnection and competition, we can continue to find ways to be together, to support one another, to show up and be seen, and to truly listen to each other with an open heart and mind. Using wise and ancient practices in new and modern ways may be one more way to learn how.